By Inyoung Choi
In 2017, the Stanford women’s basketball team made it to the Final Four, winning four consecutive games in the NCAA tournament. The entire season culminated in a single game: a semifinal against South Carolina.
Despite a strong start in the opening half, the Cardinal came up short, 62-53, to the No. 3 Gamecocks. Stanford boasted a star-studded roster, including Alanna Smith ’19, Erica McCall ’17 and Karlie Samuelson ’17. All of them would go on to play for the WNBA. Learning from them were then-freshmen Mikaela Brewer, DiJonai Carrington, Nadia Fingall and Anna Wilson, who are now all team leaders in the midst of their final season on the Farm.
While the Final Four ended on a Friday night in Dallas for Stanford, the 2016-17 season introduced the Cardinal faithful to four hard-working freshmen, who now make up a senior class capable of replicating its freshman year successes. “I’m really glad that was my freshman year because [it] set the tone for the rest of my Stanford experience,” Fingall said.
The four women crossed paths even before arriving at Stanford in 2016: Carrington, Fingall and Wilson all participated in elite American pre-collegiate basketball, namely the McDonald’s All-American game. Brewer trekked a similarly competitive path in Canada, captaining her national team to silver at the FIBA Americas U-18 Women’s Championship.
And so began their membership in the Stanford women’s basketball sisterhood, which Fingall described as something that is “very unique.”
“There’s just something about it that breeds a really, really cohesive team,” she said. “People that want to fight for each other and play for each other and really, truly love each other.”
Bold leadership on the court
Stanford women’s basketball (15-1, 4-0 Pac-12) is currently ranked third in the nation, having only given up one loss in a closely contested 64-69 defeat at Texas. Last year, the team made it to the Elite Eight, the year before the Sweet Sixteen and before that, the Final Four, which marked the 13th Final Four in the era of head coach Tara VanDerveer. But it’s not merely accolades that these women celebrate.
“I’m not huge into stats,” Carrington said. “I think there’s so much that people can do [that does] not show up on the stat sheet.”
While Carrington herself may not care too much about stats, her skill glows on the stat sheet. As a freshman, she averaged a steal every 14 minutes, the best on the team, to go along with a field goal percentage of .443. Since then, Carrington’s performance has only grown. Last season, she started all 36 games, scored a career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds in a match against Tennessee, and was voted to the All-Pac-12 team.
“Some games we need rebounding, some games we need points,” Carrington said. “We all know that we have unique leadership roles on our team … We’re able to kind of pick up on each other’s weaknesses and build on each other’s strengths.”
When asked to describe her own role on the team, she said: “I would say [I’m an] emotional leader. So when it’s too quiet in the gym or something, when I see heads going down, I’m that person I think that has to just pick everyone up.”
And while Carrington’s efforts on the court have elevated her to several watchlists for prestigious awards, including the Wade Trophy, Naismith Trophy, John R. Wooden Award and Cheryl Miller Award, the decorated athlete also understands the fragility of her success.
“I haven’t had an easy road,” she said. “I’ve been injured a lot. I’ve torn my ACL and I’ve had five knee surgeries.”
This season, a knee injury has kept her sidelined since a November game against Buffalo. In high school, she made it to the most elite circles of pre-collegiate basketball like the Jordan Brand classic despite playing only two and a half seasons due to ACL surgeries on both of her knees.
“I think [injury has showed] me that one, basketball isn’t everything,” Carrington said. Off the court, she volunteers to tutor kids and is passionate about increasing racial representation of mentors in schools with high populations of black and brown students. “And then two, [to] make the most of every opportunity that I have.”
Challenging darkness with grit
All four of these women carry a sense of humility and gratitude, perhaps because none of them have had it easy. Brewer is currently recovering from an injury. Fingall started the first 12 games of what was becoming an impressive junior season, but an ACL injury cut her campaign short, forcing her to miss the remaining 24 games. And for Wilson, head and foot injuries sidelined her for the majority of her freshman season.
“Being injured is always really hard,” Wilson said. “Whether you’re injured for three games [or] you’re just sitting out of practice, [you] can get disengaged really easily. Finding joy again in the sport was something that I was really working on.”
Learning how to enjoy the game would prove to be a challenge in its own right for these competitive athletes. As a freshman, Brewer appeared in 10 games, but stopped playing mid-season. Brewer later revealed that she was battling major depressive disorder and mental health struggles.
“There’s no way I would have been able to get to the other side of those things without [my teammates],” Brewer said of her freshman year. “I’m thinking of times where it was very, very dark for me and the three of them would literally come to my room and [stay] overnight in my freshman dorm to make sure I was okay. [This has] really shaped my outlook on life, helped me develop self-confidence and just understand that everyone is important, everyone means something on this team and in life.”
Since her freshman year, Brewer has used her platform as a student-athlete to share her story on mental health by writing and speaking at events such as GameFACES, an annual campus event for Stanford athletes to share stories of resilience. Her laptop is decorated with souvenir stickers from literary festivals, as well as one particular sticker that reads “Cardinal RHED,” referencing a student-athlete committee dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental health concerns which she has been a part of.
“I’ve been through these really difficult experiences — so my goal is that either other people don’t have to go through them or when they do that they’re extremely supported,” said Brewer, who hopes to continue her passions for basketball, writing and neuroscience in her post-Stanford career. “I want to help break down that barrier and [show that] everybody struggles, nobody’s perfect and nobody is less susceptible to mental health struggles, whatever their upbringing is or wherever they are in life. We’re all on the same playing field, and we’re all going to struggle.”
Building a team, that works — together
Like Brewer, Fingall’s experience on the team led her to exhibiting unconventional leadership. In her first season at Stanford, she saw the synergy among the dynamic personalities of the senior leaders.
“They [were] all really strong leaders, but in their own ways,” said the senior forward, sporting a big, warm smile throughout the entire interview. “I think that really helped show me that you don’t have to always be the vocal one to be a leader, you don’t have to be the one that scores 20 points a night to be a leader on a team. There are different ways you can find that match [to] operate and utilize your strengths to make the team better.”
As a freshman, Fingall became the Pac-12’s fifth-best freshman in terms of field goal percentage, with a mark of .508. She grew as a player through the seasons, and by her junior year she scored a career-high 24 points and a personal-best eight rebounds and five assists in a match against FGCU. Following her ACL injury later that season, however, she had to rethink how she could support her team.
“I had to go from playing to [more of a] background role,” she said. “[This] wasn’t an issue for me. I was going to do anything I had to do, anything I could [such as] talking to [my teammates], encouraging them, making sure I was staying in the loop about what they were doing so that I could help them.”
Her injury not only shaped the role she would play as an athlete but also as a student. As a Human Biology major, she switched her focus from developmental biology to human physiology when her injury prompted her to learn more about how the human body functions.
Fingall is back on the court this season, and has started all but two of the 16 games of the season so far. She’s made 48 of 94 attempts, recording a field goal percentage of .511, a career-high for her. Even as her contribution on the court is stronger than ever before, she hopes “to be the person that people can come to for everything.”
A reason to compete
These women are caring, but don’t mistake this supportive environment as one that’s not competitive. If anything, these athletes perhaps know best that being supportive is what makes them competitive.
“Our practices are extremely competitive, especially this year. We’re really deep at every position,” Fingall said. “I think we’re all very competitive people and that comes out, but [it’s] with the mindset that I’m doing this to get my teammate better.”
“I’m a terrible loser, I hate losing. Anything,” Wilson said with a laugh, echoing many of Fingall’s sentiments on competition.
To both improve her own game and to best support her teammates, Wilson believes that creating an environment where everyone can openly communicate is important.
“In a competitive environment that we play in all the time, learning [about] each other and how to talk to each other is really important,” Wilson said. “If we don’t understand what we’re out there doing, then there’s no way that we can do the jobs that we need to do.”
For Wilson, the relationships she forges with her teammates are something she values far beyond the game.
“My hope is that I’m friends with a lot of these girls for a lifetime,” Wilson said. “There’s so much more to our team and the culture of our team than just winning games. People make the journey so much more fun. When you can trust each other, then you’re going to work hard for the other person. And if things aren’t going your way then you can still be excited for someone else. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned from playing on the team.”
She also cherishes the opportunity to meet peers outside of her team. Wilson participates in campus involvements like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and values her relationships with fellow art practice majors.
Meanwhile, the student-athlete has consistently improved her own game. Last season, she recorded a career-high five assists in 14 minutes and a personal-best three steals in a January game against Washington. This year, she’s already handled 26 assists, averaging 1.6 assists per game. Moving forward, Wilson embraces the spontaneity she’s learned through creating art.
“Something I wish I would have learned if I was a freshman was just giving it 110% every single day,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about practice tomorrow or the practice you have before but just [focus] on the game or the practice that’s literally at that moment, and just [try] to give your best today.”
Into the last season
The Cardinal have 14 regular season games remaining this season, but the women know their aspirations extend well into the postseason.
“[We] want to win the Pac-12. We want to go to Elite Eight, go to Final Four and win the national championship,” Wilson said. “We just need to stick together as much as possible and keep our circle tight when things get a little tougher.”
And they know their team.
“It’s easy to have each other’s back on the court when all eyes are on you,” Carrington said. “But we’ve seen that each other has one another’s back [off the court, too].”
The four women will head to Oregon on Thursday night, as they continue their trek towards the Final Four — and perhaps a little more.
Contact Inyoung Choi at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu.